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Why EAP services are important

September 22nd, 2022

How to help employees use EAP service

Have you ever heard this statement? Leave your personal life outside the door when coming into work and don’t bring work home with you. I have. Separate your personal and work lives was, and at times still is, a common theme. I understand the premise of that thinking. I also get that there are limits to everything. Yet I have seen things happen that made me think, I wish I had known about EAP service.

Some years back, a parent of one of my employees took their own life. The employee sent a message to the workplace that she needed some time off and asked that no one contact her. As owner of the company, I was torn. Yes, I wanted to respect her request but I also wanted to reach out. In the end, I decided to call, and if she did not answer the call, to leave a message.

When I called, she picked up. I apologized for the call and said that I wanted to tell her how sorry I was and to offer help. We then spent about on hour on the phone. She shared with me that this parent had struggled with alcoholism and depression for some time. We discussed how difficult this had been for her and her family. I think we both felt better after speaking.

What made this situation even more difficult was she worked in a company I owned. I saw her often, yet I never knew the situation. I am sure I asked, “How are you? How is your family?” and the parent situation never came up. Even sadder, she was aware that I am in recovery, that we provided an employee assistance program, and that the culture was very accepting of such issues.

Here’s another story about EAP service: In the mid-1990s, I was walking into work and I passed an employee and said, “How are you today?” The answer was, “I think I am going to kill myself.” Others and I quickly intervened and got this person some help.

Recently I heard someone say they call “mental health” “brain health” because there’s such a stigma attached to “mental health.” This is like saying, “Let’s change ‘physical health’ to ‘body health.'” Changing what mental health is called is noble; however, I am more hopeful that we can move away from the stigma associated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and so forth.

Here is the tricky part: A manager or other leader cannot and should not diagnose an employee’s illness; however, they also should not miss the signs that there may be underlying issues.

Years ago, I worked in behavioral health at an alcohol and drug rehabilitation hospital called Parkside Lodge of Wisconsin. Part of my job was to call on human resource people and small business owners. Early on, I would ask the question (and, looking back, I can see it was not a good one): “Do you have any employees with drug and/or alcohol problems?”

The common answer was, “Could be; however, unless it is impacting their job, we can’t do anything about it.” I would then ask if they had any employees who were problematic and did not have the needed work performance.  The answer was generally, “Yes, and I wish the managers would do a better job documenting it.”

About that time, I met Shannon Burns. Shannon worked in Chicago for the same company I did. She had started conducting supervisory training sessions for managers on how to spot employees with issues and what to do about them. She agreed to come to Wisconsin to do some workshops and teach me how to conduct them.

In the sessions, she went over some indicators of possible personal issues that impact a person’s work performance: for example, regularly missing Mondays, coming in late, leaving early, taking lots of sick days. Other signs included deterioration of a previously solid employee’s work, increased errors in work, increased isolation or angry outbursts.

We also would discuss when and how a supervisor should address such issues. Shannon said the supervisor should always address items like lateness, poor work, coworker issues, missed days and so forth. She said the professional thing to do is to address the action but also — early on and often — let the person know the company offers confidential access to an employee assistance program (EAP). 

An EAP is a great benefit and one that is sadly underused. It provides the employee and family members access to a professional who can help them with the situation and provide referrals to the right person or place.

Ideally, an employee will share the challenge they are facing. For example: “I had a baby and I am very sad (or I feel I have postpartum depression)” …” I have lost a parent and am really struggling”…”My marriage is falling (or has fallen) apart.” It is great to have an avenue for employees to take during tough times in their lives, but leaders have to let them know it’s available and make sure they feel safe enough to access it.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen this way. At times, the employer must step in and make the EAP referral mandatory. For example, serious work issues may be continuing, despite the employee’s promising that they would not. This usually happens in the written warning or the final warning stage. While you don’t need to know the diagnosis, you can make sure the employee did reach out for help.

Again, this is a seldom-used benefit. I have had managers share with me situations their employees were encountering. I always ask, “Have you shared with them or referred them to the EAP?” The answer is often, “No, I did not think of that.”

We need to change this mindset. After all, if an employee came to their boss and said they had blood in their urine, terrible migraines, or back pain, we would think nothing of encouraging them to go to a professional! This is no different. A few tips:

Make sure employees know that you offer EAP services. Tell them up front during the hiring process. Also, remind them whenever you can. For example, May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and October is National Substance Abuse Prevention Month. These are good times to spotlight such issues in your company newsletter and include information about the EAP.

Reassure people that it’s ‘safe’ to ask for EAP assistance. Let them know these services are confidential. They will not be penalized for seeking help, nor will they be seen as “weak” or “unstable.” On the contrary, let them know seeking help is the right thing to do, not just for themselves but for their teammates and the entire company.

Share your own struggles with mental health, addiction, etc. I am open with people about my own history with addiction and my recovery journey. I find the more leaders are willing to be transparent and vulnerable, the less employees will let worries about stigma hold them back from seeking help.

Make time to talk to employees about their lives outside of work. It’s not always easy to find the time, but it’s a huge trust-builder. To build a strong relationship, you have to put in the time. The more you get to know employees on a personal level, the more likely they are to confide in you about sensitive issues.

If you suspect something, say something. It may be uncomfortable to approach an employee and ask if they are okay, but do so anyway. Give feedback based on the changes you’ve observed in their behavior or performance. Be specific. Let them know you care. After this discussion, if you’re still concerned, refer them to the EAP.

EAP services are a great resource for all involved. They benefit employees by helping them restore mental, emotional, and physical well-being. They give managers a way to insist that employees meet job requirements while still showing concern and providing access to help. And they benefit the company by helping restore productivity at work: No employee can be at their top performance when they’re struggling with personal issues.

Most importantly EAP services can save lives. Business is important, but people are more important. We are all human. We all stumble in various ways. With help, we can all get better.

Quint Studer is the founder of the Studer Community Institute and a successful business leader, speaker and author. He is also the entrepreneur in residence at the University of West Florida.


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